An innovative solution to glacier depletion in the Ladakhi region
Natural glaciers are threatened by climate change, so let’s build our own. That’s what engineers in the dry mountainous region of Ladakh in India sought to do (1). Ladakh is home to over 200 villages that rely on farming and has a challenging climate with below –20ºF winters and only two inches of rainfall a year (2). In Asia, over 221 million people, including the Ladakhi people, rely on a supply of fresh water from glaciers in the high mountain ranges (3). Glaciers are huge stores of frozen water and slowly melt, providing a steady supply of water for surrounding villages (3). Nonetheless, this essential source of water used for drinking and agricultural irrigation is threatened by the effects of climate change. Natural glaciers are rapidly receding due to the global rise in average temperatures. As glaciers melt faster during the warming summers, winter snowfall is unable to fully replenish glaciers (3). These shifting snowlines lead to dried-out glacier streams during the spring when freshly planted crops most need irrigation (2).
As a result, many Ladakhi communities have already relocated due to these shrinking glaciers, but engineers have invented a solution by creating their own “mini-glaciers” (1). In 2013, Sonam Wangchuk, a mechanical engineer and teacher, began constructing artificial ice reservoirs also known as ice towers or ice stupas (2). In the winter, engineers construct ice towers, which reach the size of a tall building and provide drinking water and crop irrigation as they melt throughout the spring (1). Wangchuk and a group of students from the Student’s Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL) engineered the first ice tower during the winter of 2013 to 2014 (2). They used a series of pipes to divert water from a nearby flowing stream to a location in the warmest area of the valley (2). Then, a 35-foot-long pipe was connected to the water source and placed perpendicular to the ground (2). A fountainhead atop this pipe continuously dispensed a fine spray of water that turned to ice in the freezing air. (2) Sometimes, tree branches and fishing nets were used to assist with ice formation and structure (4). The ice tower reached 23 feet tall and lasted until May 18th (2). In November 2014, Wangchuk and his team constructed a second ice tower near a monastery in Phyang Valley (2). The 64-foot ice tower slowly supplied 2 million gallons of water throughout the spring and summer until it completely melted in early July (2). Currently, 26 villages in the Ladakhi region are constructing their own ice towers, which require limited amounts of infrastructure, skills, and energy (4).
Nevertheless, these ice towers have faults. Some farmers argue that the creation of ice towers diverts glacier melt from their farmlands (2). Ice towers are also extremely inefficient. Rarely does all of the dispensed water freeze on the tower; more than 70% of the water spouted is wasted (1). The construction process can also be hindered by frozen pipes (1). Researchers from India, Switzerland, and the Netherlands developed an automated system that periodically sprays water based on weather data, water dispensing data, and current ice tower measurements (4). Their study showed that in comparison to the conventional method, the automated system could spray less water while creating a larger ice tower; the continuous fountain used 1,100 cubic meters of water to create 53 cubic meters of ice, while the automated system used 150 cubic meters of water to create 61 cubic meters of ice (4). Suryanarayanan Balasubramanian, the lead researcher of this study, stated that their goal is to reduce the cost of this automated system to around $200 to $400 in order to make it more affordable for Ladakhi farmers (1).
Overall, ice towers are an innovative solution, and in the face of climate change, the automated construction of ice towers may be an affordable and sustainable alternative for communities that rely on seasonal meltwater from glaciers.
- Ogasa, N. (2022, July 6). How to build better ice towers for drinking water and irrigation. Science News. Retrieved from https://www.sciencenews.org/article/ice-stupa-tower-india-drinking-water-irrigation.
- Nayar, A. (2019, January 11). No, they’re not a mirage – learn how these ingenious ice towers are helping communities preserve water for dry times. Ideas Ted. Retrieved from https://ideas.ted.com/no-theyre-not-a-mirage-learn-how-these-ingenious-ice-towers-are-helping-communities-preserve-water-for-dry-times/.
- Gramling, C. (2019, May 29). Himalayan glacier melting threatens water security for millions of people. Science News. Retrieved from https://www.sciencenews.org/article/himalayan-glacier-melting-threatens-water-security-millions-people.
- Balasubramanian, S, et al. (2022, February 23). Influence of Meteorological Conditions on Artificial Ice Reservoir (Icestupa) Evolution. Frontiers in Earth Science. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2021.771342/full.
An ice stupa being constructed in the Ladakh region of India
Glacier melt in the Himalayan region of Ladakh